Alive. (Matthew 26-28)

January 15, 2011

I’m feeling a bit flummoxed with this post. I’ve just read Matthew 26-28, which contains the entire passion, anointing at Bethany through to Resurrection, and what do you say about that really? Except, wow, that’s all pretty amazing!

Or perhaps that’s not my problem at all, perhaps it’s that I’m not amazed enough. I’ve heard these stories probably more than any others in the Bible, they are familiar to many, whether Christian of not. In fact, I must admit, it occured to me that I could probably write something about this passage without actually having to read it. But then I reminded myself why I’m doing this blog!

So how do we engage with something so familiar? I suppose a good place to start is to imagine that you don’t already know the story, that you are there as it unfolds, with its incomprehensible highs and lows. To put yourself in the place of the women who stayed to the end, who saw Jesus, their beloved Messiah, die next to petty criminals (27-55-56). Or those men who had given up everything for Jesus, only to see him taken away by an armed crowd and told by their teacher not to even try to resist (26:51-54).

We emphasise Good Friday and Easter Sunday in our liturgies and celebration, but when I think about these people it is often the day inbetween that I wonder about. There is a gaping silence in the gospels when it comes to this day. We are told that Jesus is buried and that an armed guard is placed around his tomb (27:57-66), but there is nothing about this disciples; what they did or how they felt. There must have been fear; would they be next? There must also have been despair at the death of their Jesus, for surely, even with his opaque references to resurrection, they would not have held out much hope. After all, we are told by Matthew that when the disciples met the resurrected Jesus in Galilee still some of them doubted (28:17).

I remember one Easter Saturday doing Ignatian imagination meditation on this story. I imagined I was one of the women at the cross, who had then attended his burial, as Matthew tells us the two Marys did (27:61). Perhaps they helped to prepare the body. This left no doubt that he was dead. In this meditation I felt myself lie down in bed, utterly desolate. He was gone; this great redeemer, the man on which my hope was pinned, had died, just like any other man, worse.  I remember feeling that I too had died with him.

I have wondered why it was the women who stayed at the cross. Perhaps his male disciples had been known publicly and it was not safe to show themselves. But surely it also that the women, especially those like Mary Magdalene who were not also following their sons, needed to cling to their hope until the last. What would they do if he was gone? They were single women, what was there for them to go back to? Perhaps some of them had left lives they did not wish to return to, for others they could not. Jesus had treated them in ways they would not have dreamed, how would they go back to before?

When I think of these people, then I see how amazing this story is. Chapter 28 has life again as I imagine the two Mary’s, who were there at every stage, seeing that their redeemer lives. There was still a kernel of hope they had not allowed themselves to notice in the darkness of grief, and now it comes alive in them, as they are given the honour of being the first to preach the Good News. He lives. He lives.

I often feel that we see the resurrection as the ‘the bit after the crucifixion’ in the Church. Sure, we mention it often enough, but do we remember it? Do we feel it? Are we sufficiently amazed by it?

 Matthew’s gospel ends wonderfully, with words from Jesus’ lips; “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is the resurrection. This is the Good News, surely. Of course the cross is central to our, certainly to my, beliefs, but it is nothing without what comes after.

It life, vitality, dynamism with which this gospel ends.

So may you be given hope where there none. So may you be given life where there was death. So may you know that he is with you always, to the end of the age.

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The Ideal Woman? (Ruth)

January 8, 2011

Guess what dear reader? I read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting! Okay, so it was the book of Ruth, which means in my tiny-tiny-small-print Bible only two and a half pages, but still I feel a certain sense of achievement.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that people really love this book. It is not unusual to hear ‘ooh I love Ruth!’, whereas ‘oh I love Joshua’ doesn’t crop up quite as much. Of course there is the wonderful and often quoted declaration “Where you go, I will go/ where you lodge, I will lodge / your people shall be my people / and your God my God.” (1:16) More famous than the story perhaps, and a popular choice for weddings, apparently. I find that rather odd, as it’s said by one widow to another. Good sentiment though.

And I am of rather the same disposition as the Ruth-lovers. I like the book of Ruth, perhaps instinctively because it is one of the only two books of the Bible named after a woman.

Oh yes, I have been a feminist much longer than I’ve been a Christian; I wasn’t baptised until I was 23, but at the age of 2 I refused to build an ‘snow-man’, it had to be a ‘snow-girl’. We’ll have gender equality in my front garden, thank you very much!

But when I read the book this time, thoughts that have only niggled before seemed to bubble to the service. They centre around the role of Ruth in the story. It starts out very promisingly, with her beautiful speech promising loyalty to her mother-in-law and the God of Israel, even if it means living in poverty. This passage (1:15-18) paints a picture of Ruth a determined, strong and fiercely loyal woman, but when they get back to Bethlehem the picture changes. Ruth’s words after this point are almost entirely expressions of obedience and gratitude, or requests. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it’s part of a wider narrative in which Ruth seems to lose her dynamism. It is Naomi who orchestrates the situation; who sends her to glean and later to lay at Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor (a possible euphemism apparently!). And it is Boaz, of course, who arranges the marriage. In fact, he gets Ruth as part of a package deal; he buy’s her late father-in-law’s land and also ‘acquires’ her as he puts it (4:9-10).

Of course, this is a cynical reading of the text. Boaz is obviously a generous and affectionate man, we see this in his dealings with Ruth when she gleans in his fields (chapter 2). So much so, in fact, that one of my favourite charities the Boaz Trust, who serve destitute asylum seekers in Manchester, have made him a model for welcoming the stranger. Which, of course, Ruth was as a Moabite woman. Many Israelites would have shunned her for this reason.

I suppose my problem isn’t with the treatment of Ruth, but with the presentation of her as a role model for women. After chapter 1 she is meek and obedient, she doesn’t speak unless spoken to and she never questions the instructions she’s given, even when she’s told to go to an older man in the middle of the night and risk being shamed. 

There is nothing wrong with being a meek and mild woman, but for those of us who do not have that natural inclination the Christian tendency to idolise this way of being can leave us feeling loud, inappropriate and unfeminine. Ruth, like Mary and many other young women of the Bible, is presented as blushing and obliging (though who knows it this was really the case). Her purity seems to be linked to a passivity. But I know there are many women, like me, who don’t fit this model; we love to debate, to passionately gesticulate, to challenge those around us, regardless of their gender. And while women like that can seem the most confident you know, many, especially Christians, can have an underlying feeling that they don’t fit the mould. Perhaps even that they aren’t how God created them to be?

But what is it to be a Godly woman? At the end of this book we are given a genealogy that tells us Ruth was great-grand mother of David; a mark of her significance. But there is another women mentioned, another widow who bore a son, and funnily enough, she is mentioned my previous reading, Genesis 38; Tamar.

As Boaz and Ruth marry, the town elders wish them well saying “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” (4:12) and later we see that Boaz is in fact of the line of Perez (4:18-22). So just as the widowed but redeemed Ruth takes her part in forming the line to David, so does Tamar. And so, as Matthew tells us in his first chapter, they are also ancestors of Jesus; part of the unfolding path the Christ (Matthew 1:1-16, esp 3-5).

And you thought genealogies were just boring lists, hey?

But why am I bringing up Tamar? The woman who pretended to be a prostitute so that her father-in-law (she was widowed) would sleep with her and give her a son? Not a fantastic role model, surely?

Well, actually, maybe she is. Okay, it all seems pretty off to us, and more than slightly of icky to us married ladies, but this was a woman who no one was looking out for. She was a widow, promised to be married to Judah’s youngest son (the other two had died on her, the second deliberately not impregnating her). The promise was not fulfilled, so where did this leave her? There’s a reason the law and the prophets and the words of Jesus and the New Testament letters all contain commands to care for widows; they often weren’t cared for. No male relatives could mean no money, no house. If Tamar was pretending to be a prostitute once, it was better than being reduced to being one forever once her father had died and she had nowhere to go.

So she takes matters into her own hands. She stands up for herself and when she is accused of “whoredom” she exposed Judah to himself; he is not only the kind of man who’ll take a prostitute, but one who will neglect his daughter-in-law and then says “let her be burned” when he hears her doing the very thing he has done (38:24). So he says “she is more in the right than I”. You go girl! Well, sort of.

Now, we need not take Tamar’s example literally. It goes without saying that none of us need to become father-in-law bedding fake prostitutes! But what I can see from this is that it takes all sorts. God doesn’t make women with cookie cutter; sweet and perfectly formed. Just as we have to deny society’s lie that there is an ideal look for women, when we can see that God created us in abundant and diverse beauty, so we can refuse to believe that there is one ‘ideal’ woman. Some of us are quiet, some talkative. Some confident, some shy. Some are firey, some gentle. And most of us a big fat mixture.

So, God made them all and gave them their place in the story of our faith. Loyal and obedient Ruth, defiant and assertive Tamar, strong and stoic Mary. And many more. Men and women can learn from these great figures.

Got that? Good.

Right, I’m off to straighten my hair… (it’s funny because it’s true).

Genesis 36-39 is a bit of a strange mixture. The story of Joseph’s first dreams and his brothers selling him into slavery (this family has issues!) in chapter 37 is sandwiched between the genealogy of Esau and the strange story of Judah and his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, in which she tricks him into sleeping with her so that she can have offspring. I’ll say it again; this family has issues! Then we have Joseph’s first experiences in Egypt, in which he is put in charge of his master’s entire affairs, only to be wrongly accused of adultery and thrown in prison. Don’t worry though, soon he’s put in charge of the prison too: bonus!

Yesterday I sat and read these chapters and, do you know, I couldn’t think of any thing to say about them. These stories are really famous, and undoubtedly rich in meaning and inspiration, but I just sat there with the theme from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, as sung by Jason Donovan no less, going around in my head. You know the one “any dream will do!‘. If you’re in the US, this may mean little to you; enjoy the cheese all the same!

Enough of that. I have come up with a few ideas… I could tell you a fun fact; that one of Esau’s descendents is called Eliphaz and another Tem, and the Eliphaz in the book of Job is Eliphaz the Temite. But there’s more! Job is from ‘Uz’ and that’s another of the descendents of Esau, meaning that it’s likely Job is from Edom. Does this means that he wasn’t a Israelite? But he was still God’s favourite? Pretty cool stuff here in the Old Testament about inclusivity, huh?

And I have other thoughts about how cool Reuben is for trying to save Joseph and risk the wrath of his, apparently homicidal, brothers. Or how Tamar could be seen as a strong woman asserting her right to offspring that men had denied her (a childless widow would have had a hard time in those days, still does now in many ways). Or how God’s is always with Joseph, whatever happens.

All of those things would make for interesting posts, I think but none of them really excite me. I don’t particularly want to write about any of them.

I was speaking to my husband yesterday about getting mentally exhausted; I think many of us tend to get this way. You can rest your body a lot but still be making mental lists and plans, or worrying, or engaging your mind more productively but still, working it hard! I think the most tiring thing of all is performing for others. In my case if I were to writw about one of the above topics I’d be doing my ‘I’m a really good Christian who’s always inspired by the Bible’ performance, or perhaps my ‘I’m a dedicated and thought-provoking blogger’ performance. But I’m tired of performing.

So instead I shall break the cycle and say I don’t really know. And that’s okay. And tonight, or today or whenever you read this it’s okay if you don’t know too. It’s okay if you’re tired, or unenthusiastic about something, it’s okay if Psalms don’t always set your world on fire, or you dreading going into to work. It’s okay not to be perfect all the time. We’re not perfect, in fact our very imperfection is part of the Good News of Jesus; we don’t need to be perfect because we’re not God!

There’s no “blessed are the extremely busy; for their’s is the blackberry of heaven” in the Sermon on the Mount, and no “woe to you who rest now, for you will be busy later!”. In fact, God’s big on rest, just look Genesis 2:3 it says God rested.

So give yourself a break. And I’ll try to give myself one too. Thinking is over-rated, I’m off to giggle and eat and watch TV…

I’ll be honest, I can’t help being more than slightly disturbed when I read Genesis 16-19. The appalling treatment of the slavegirl Hagar (16:1-6); the disturbing story of Sodom when Lot tries to give a ravenous crowd of men his virgin daughters to “do to them as you please” (19:1-11), the creepy story of Lot’s daughters getting him drunk so they could become pregnant by him (19:30-38). Let’s just say there are nicer parts of the Bible.

First things first: reading the story of Sodom I wonder how anyone could take the story of Sodom as a blanket comment on homosexuality. The crowd of men that surround Lot’s house and demand to “know” the angels are attackers, not seducers. Yes, their attack may have a sexual element but it’s still an attack. Rape is the ‘abomination’ here, whoever it is done to. And that Lot offers his two daughters in the men’s place doesn’t necessarily imply that it would be better if the rape was heterosexual! Perhaps it implies that Lot himself has been corrupted by this place or if not that he protected them because they were guests (19:8) or even because they were angels (19:1). How this story can be equated with a loving monogamous homosexual relationship is beyond me. Just needed to get that off my chest.

Now, onto to the good stuff. What has made an impression on me more than the disturbing treatment of women and angels in these chapters is the way Abraham (given his name in chapter 17), Sarah (likewise) and Lot all communicate with God.

When told that they will still have a son, despite being 100 and 90 years old respectively, Abraham and Sarah both laugh at God. In fact,  “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). I can imagine him rolling about on the floor; “O, Lord, that’s a good one!”. He manages to get  away with it though. Not so with Sarah, she’s told off (18:9-15). I love how she tries to hide it too, telling God she didn’t laugh, to which he replies “Oh yes, you did laugh.” It’s like a pantomime.

Do you ever laugh at God? Laugh at the possibility of the impossible? Laugh at the idea of your wildest dreams coming true?

It’s nice to see in Genesis that incredulity is not only an aspect of faith in the cynical 21st century, but has always been there. Comforting to think that even the mother and father of a great nation didn’t quite believe their calling.

How about negotiating with God? Ever try your hand at that? Abraham and Lot do. I especially like the scene of Abraham trying to talk God down from destroying Sodom (18:22-33). At first he asks confidently if a Just God will destroy a city if there are even just 50 righteous people live there? God agree to spare Sodom if there are 50 righteous people. Then Abraham sees he’s on to something, tries his luck, and talks God down to 10 righteous people, each time asking with more polite reverence “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more…” Haggling with God? I didn’t know that was allowed. Lot negotiates too. When fleeing he is told not to stop anywhere in the Plain but he says “can’t I just go to that little city over there? It’s only a little one!” (perhaps not in those exact words).  And God let’s him!

So what’s that about? How much is negotiable? Is prayer negotiation? When do we argue with God and when do we just do what we’re told?

I like this God who listens to the appeals of his people, who will be reasoned with. It’s a bit anthropomorphic maybe, but there’s something quite appealing about a God that you can laugh with/at and talk to. Hagar certainly knew this in the desert when she fled from her harsh treatment (16:7-15). Although she is sent back (perhaps she could have negotiated a little better there) she is promised that it will not be in vain. And she calls God El-roi which probably means God of seeing or God who sees.

In all these stories God is almost tangibly present, there to be laughed at, scared of, reasoned with and, of course welcomed (18-1-8). He is not far off executing his plan with clinical precision but close, a guest as well as a God.

I long for a relationship with God like this. Most of the time I don’t have it but these chapters, odd and disturbing bits aside, inspire me to think of God as involved in my life. And quite right too. God is present, involved, accessible. We just need to be open to negotiation.

Fair reader, I’m not going to lie to you, I skim read some of the passages in Joshua 16-20. All the:

“the territory of the Ephraimites by their families was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6and the boundary goes from there to the sea; on the north is Michmethath; then on the east the boundary makes a turn towards Taanath-shiloh, and passes along…[yada yada yada]”

and the :

“Now the towns of the tribe of Benjamin according to their families were Jericho, Beth-hoglah, Emek-keziz, 22Beth-arabah, Zemaraim, Bethel, 23Avvim, Parah, Ophrah…[blah de blah de blah]”

just didn’t float my boat this afternoon. And I’m sure it’s all very important for many reasons beyond my understanding (if you know them please do fill me in) but it’s not the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly is it?

However! There are some interesting things going on in all this land-dividing-up business. My favourite serves as a nice contrast to yesterday’s ‘giving your wife to the Pharoah’ debacle. Yes, the bit where the daughters of Zelophehad (pronounce that!), stand up for their rights! Having no brothers to inherit their portion of the land they say to Joshua “the Lord commanded Moses to give us inheritance along with our male kin” and so they get their inheritance. It’s just briefly mentioned in 17:3-6 but this must have been very significant; to give women certain property rights? That’s big. It may not seem big to us, but often women without close male relatives would be destitute in these times, as the plight of Naomi in the book of Ruth shows. So this is pretty right on, and I’m glad to read it. It reminds that though the general tone of the scriptures is pretty darn patriarchal, strong women pop up and are respected again and again. And these women must have been strong to stand up in front of an assembly of men and claim their rights. Go sisters!

Another, more curious, provision comes in chapter 20, with the cities of refuge. These places are created for people to flee to when they need refuge. So far, so good. But they are specifically for those who seek refuge if they have killed “a person without intent or by mistake” and are being pursued by an avenger. Erm, okay…My first question: How do you kill a person by mistake?

Perhaps this is a reference to Moses, who killed someone and fled from Egypt as a younger man. Or perhaps these are just very very different times, when violence is a matter of fact. We forget how cushioned we are, those of us who can sit in front of our computers and read about violence in our newspapers. And although the concept confuses me, I like that there is this provision. That the people of God include refuge in their division of the land and,  importantly, that refuge is for “all the Israelites and all the aliens residing among them.” From the beginning the people of Israel are not an insular self-serving community, as some readings may paint them, but one that also provides for those who live amongst them. So even whilst dividing their conquerred lands, the Israelites retain a sense of justice.

You may be surprised that I have found something positive to say about the book of Joshua at long last, I know I am! But if nothing else then that’s what the Good Book does; it surprises you. For better or for worse.

And we’re back the letters of Paul. In Romans 3-4 he’s continuing his argument that relationship with God is not only open to Jews, but also to Greeks (by implication to all) and that faith, not adherence to the law, is what now matters in one’s relationship with God. At least that’s what I think he’s saying; I don’t know if it’s the translation or if my brain’s still recovering from the weekend’s stresses but it seems to me that Paul’s prose is some of the most wordy writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of deciphering.

I did find one part pretty darn clear though. 3:9-19 is encouragingly entitled “None is Righteous”. Wait, it get’s better! “Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive…” Nice. I don’t know about you but last time I checked “the venom of vipers” was not under my lips (3:13).

Like much of Paul’s writing, in fact much of the Bible, this passage can seem extremely harsh at first. The implication here is that we are all sinners, that none can follow the law to the extend that would make them righteous before God. That’s hard to hear, we know that some people live better lives than others, so why isn’t Paul giving them any credit?

Somehow, though, I find the sentence “there is no one who is righteous” profoundly freeing.  When I don’t hear as an attack, but as an offering of wisdom, it becomes quite wonderful. No one is righteous. I can’t be righteous. When I accept that, though I don’t stop trying to do the right thing  or ‘be good’, I can stop hating myself for not attaining some insane vision of perfection. Because what Paul’s saying isn’t “you’re a bunch of sinners and there’s no hope for any of you!” I think it’s more like “we’re all a bunch of sinners, but there’s still hope for all of us!”

I’m not perfect, and the gospel is not that God will make me perfect. It’s that in all my imperfection He still sent Jesus to live and die for me. For us. And when I can accept that imperfection, there is freedom. Freedom from those horrible voices within all of us that tell us we’re not good enough, that we’ll never be. If I can turn around and say to those voices “yeah…and?” they lose all their power. Not that I shouldn’t try and improve on my faults, but that they are not what define my life. If I can shift focus (and I often can’t) away from making myself into the perfect person and onto serving God then everything begins to change. So acknowledgement of my imperfection can make room for God’s sublime perfection in my life.

With this knowledge there are moments when I realise that there is no state that I need to attain, no amount of gold stars I need to collect, to be welcomed by God, and to be serious about living for God. When I remember this there are new horizons of promise that open our before me, because I am not limiting what God can do through me by some crazy idea that I have to be perfect, or at least much better than I am, before we can get started.

The moments when I really know this are rare, so I’m I have Paul to remind me. Even if he does have a rather forceful way with words. Well, nobody’s perfect…

Good old Paul. Good old verbose, passionate, occasionally infuriating, often inspiring Paul. What the New Testament be without him? Well, very very short for starters.

These first two chapters bring up the mingled feelings of affection and frustration I have with the letters of Paul. I love his sheer bombasticy (not a word, but should be), his zeal and his directness. Even his salutation is a nifty summary of the gospel with references to Jewish heritage as well as a welcome to the Gentiles. He doesn’t waste time, our Paul. No sooner has he given effulgent thanks for the Roman Christians and slotted in a couple of verses about the power of the gospel than he sets off on hot subject number one; the guilt of humankind. ‘O here we go!’ says a naughty little voice in my head.

This stuff makes difficult reading for me if I’m honest. I didn’t grow up in the church and I had to work hard not to be completely thrown by words like ‘wickedness’, ‘evil’ and ‘impurity’. Not that they just occur in Paul, of course, but they are rather densely clustered here! Yet if I can get through the language laden with hundreds of years of human baggage there are so many gems in this reading; so many truths.

Before I go any further, though, let me deal with the big homophobic elephant in the room. Verses 26-27 make me profoundly uncomfortable. When these passages are read as ‘homosexuality is a sign of human degradation’ it makes my skin crawl. For me this a prime example of a culturally specific part of the Bible that we don’t need to take literally, just as we would no longer tells slaves to obey their masters or women to keep silence in church (if you would do either of those things then this might not be the blog for you.) This was a time when there we no space in society for same-sex couples to develop a loving, monogamous relationship and build a family. Now, thank God, there is in many countries. The Message translation of this text puts in lots of modern conservative Christian thought that’s not there but it does also say the problem was “all lust, no love”. That’s a sign of us going astray but it can happen to straight people as much as gay people, believe me, I know! So I’ll attempt to put this archaic aspect aside and concentrate on the more eternal truths to be found.

Paul writes that God’s divine nature is revealed in his creation; that though He is invisible he can be seen in the glory of the world (1:20). Later in, chapter 2 he tells us that those who obey the law without knowing it will be rewarded. He says that the law is not just something you hear and obey but something that is written in our hearts (2:15). He is writing this to break down distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, a favourite campaign of his, but more than this he’s illustrating the universality of God’s call, God’s truth.

But still, it’s not all peachy. We have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, he writes in 1:24. In the same verse he mentions about idol worship – worshipping the creature rather than the creator. This speaks to me of how easy it to reduce God to our parameters of understanding, rather than submit in awe to the Mystery we will never solve, but can somehow serve.

The lies are easier sometimes, aren’t they? We have swapped golden idols for money and images in magazines now. The perfect body, house, relationship, life. We worship ideals dictated more by commerce that anything else. I’m guilty as charged here. I once went to a great Christian arts campaigns night about fairtrade and one of the most striking things I wrote was the sentence “help us who love things more than their Creator”. When I buy something to cheer me up instead of leaning on God am I any better than the people with their secret golden gods? I can only answer no.

Paul really nails it in for me when he warns against judging others in early chapter 2. “Takes one to know one” says the Message translation. I don’t think I’m a very judgemental person, but I totally am on this front. When I see someone driving an immaculately clean 4X4 in the city or who spends more on his/her appearance than I spend on food, I judge. And Paul, with all his strictness and zeal, reminds me of my profound imperfection, reminds me that I fall short daily.

Now, this is a depressing ending to my usually breezy posts, unfortunately we haven’t got to the part of Romans that says “don’t worry if you’re not perfect, be Jesus is, yay” (not sure if that’s quite word-for-word…). But yay all the same. It doesn’t mean I don’t need reminding that there’s (a heck of a lot of) room for improvement. Indeed, if I didn’t need that much of the Bible would become pretty redundant, especially good old Paul. But somehow it’s easier to face my own imperfections when I know that they’re not the be-all-and-end-all. God is the be-all-and-end-all, even gentiley old me knows that. It’s written on my heart.

It feels strange to read the first two chapters of Matthew in mid October. Sure, the ‘Christmas gifts’ (the same stuff that’s been there all year but now have superfluous packaging) are appearing in the shops and very soon you won’t be able to walk down a high street without hearing White Christmas, but no one’s actually going to mention baby Jesus until at least mid December are they really. And it’s a shame, because what a story. What a light it shines for us.

There’s no road to Bethlehem, no manger in Matthew, but the essentials remain. Jesus was born “and they shall call him Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us.'” (1:23). I know very little about Orthodox Christianity but I do know that they celebrate the incarnation much more than the traditions I’m familiar with. We seem to focus our hope on the death of Christ, whereas, I think (please correct me if I’m wrong) Orthodox Christians see redemption in God’s coming to Earth. And what a profound blessing that is. He comes as a baby; you can hold God in your arms. What intimacy, what Grace.

And immediately he faces such human challenges. Jesus and his family are forced to flee to Egypt for fear of their lives. Indeed, Matthew devotes a whole chapter to these events; much more than to the pregnancy and birth. He wants us to know about the danger and hardship of the first years of Jesus’ life. This is both comforting and challenging. Comforting because it tells us of the intimacy with which God has experienced human suffering. Challenging because Jesus’ story begins among the outcasts, and it stays there doesn’t it? And so it asks us who have never fled how we will respond to the homeless, to the asylum seeker, to the outcasts everywhere.

That question won’t always be a the forefront of our minds as Christmas commercialism takes over in the next month or so. In fact the slughter of the innocents and the exile to Egypt often gets lost altogether in that no man’s land between Christmas and New Year.  But I shall try to remember, that after the wise men’s presents came murders and exile. It’s not all tinsel and trees… But even in the darkness, God is with us.

And what a way to begin. Genesis 1-2:3 is wonderful isn’t it? True poetry; “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the water.”

And from that came sky and light and tree and birds. Even “great sea monsters monsters” get a mention. And finally, but never finally, us. “Let us make humankind in our own image…male and female he created them”. These first 34 verses are so profound, so potent with meaning and significance that I have few words. I’m sure I’m seeing them as is a dark mirror dimly. They effect me very much like John 1 does. There a rhythm to these words that seeps truth into your pores. Read it, read it now! It tells us of a God who brings light from darkness, fertility from barreness and who gives us the gift and responsibility of his creation.

I didn’t know until recently that many scholars agree that this and Genesis 2:4-3:24 are two different accounts of creation, but it makes sense to me. It’s feels awkward to fit these two together. Creation has a different order and the depictions of God really contrast . In the first story God is he but seems more mysterious and formless than God in the Garden of Eden, who talks with Adam and strolls through his creation. I’m not saying these are different Gods, not at all, but different aspects definitely. And it’s nice to have them side by side, as if one of the first messages of the Hebrew scriptures is a pluralilty of experience and understanding; something I feel the Church could do with embracing more and more.

The story of Eden is one we all know, or we think we know. There is no apple, Eve is no whily minx (she isn’t even called Eve yet, just woman). It is certainly one we recognise. Wanting the one thing we can’t have; knowledge not always being a blessing; shame that drives us away from God.

But I suppose what I want to say today is don’t forget the first chapter of Genesis, or see it as a prologue to Eden. Genesis 1 tells us we were made in the image of God. That’s really important. I don’t think it matters if you don’t take the six days literally, I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that we are part of God’s creation, which he called good “indeed, it was very good”.

There is prevelant theology that we are inherently wicked, which some verses of scripture, especially from the psalms, seem to back up. That idea that our innate nature being displeasing to God always troubled me. Indeed, the week before I was baptised I broke down into floods of tears at my house group because that very thing was being discussed and I was worried that I shouldn’t get baptised in a church that held this idea as true. Needless to say everyone was very loving about it and I took the plunge that Sunday. It is nice for me, then, that here in Genesis 1 I find an ally. God created us in his image and called us good; could we really be capable of changing the very nature of God’s creation? We can forget it, corrupt it, we can live in a state of sin that separates us from it, absolutely – that’s what I think the Eden story is about to a large extent – but change it? Change God’s creation inherently? There’s nothing about that in chapter 3. Toil and conflict? Sure? A state of irrevocable wickedness? Not so much.

So I am thankful for this first, deep mystery, that of creation, into which our Bible gives an insight. God created light out of darkness. I look out of my window now and see sun on autumn leaves and blue sky. And I am thankful to the creative God in whom I believe and whose work I could never reverse, however badly I screw up. And who will not turn away from me even though I hide in shame. Before God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, he makes them clothes…